Martin Scorsese vs. Marvel: how superhero movies are changing Hollywood cinema

Comic book characters are in, gangsters and mafiosos are out

The Marvel Cinematic Universe media franchise began with 2008’s Iron Man. Image courtesy of Walt Disney/Marvel Studios / TechRadar.

By: James Conn, SFU Student

Comic book superheroes have been present in movies and television for decades now, spanning as far back as the 1950s with the Adventures of Superman and the 1960s with the Batman TV series. Theatrical adaptations of these superhero stories were also released throughout the 1970s all the way up to the present day. These movies and tv series cemented many comic book nerds’ love for the characters.

Prior to the 2000s, however, the superhero genre had always been viewed as more of a cult fandom. But after the theatrical successes of the X-Men (2000–2019), Spider-Man (2002–2007), and The Dark Knight (2005–2012) franchises, it was clear that casual media consumers were interested in this genre too. This was recently proven true again, when Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame alone made over $2.7 billion at the worldwide box office, making it the highest grossing film of all time

Despite these successes, various Hollywood legends have recently criticized comic book films and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), most notably Martin Scorsese, known for highly acclaimed films such as GoodFellas, Taxi Driver, and The Wolf of Wall Street. In an interview with Empire Magazine, Scorsese said of Marvel films, “[ … ] That’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” Other filmmakers along the lines of Scorsese have supported his claims, including Francis Ford Coppola, who is known for directing The Godfather trilogy. Coppola has stated that Marvel films are “despicable.” 

Scorsese later doubled down on his original comment about MCU being more like theme parks than true cinema by stating that “theatres seem to be mainly supporting the theme park, amusement park, comic book films. They’re taking over the theatres. I think they can have those films; it’s fine. It’s just that shouldn’t become what our young people believe is cinema. It just shouldn’t.” 

While Scorsese and Coppola may be entitled to their opinions about the validity of their own beloved gangster films over the MCU, their views completely disregard the franchise’s success and the way it shifted the nature of filmmaking for Hollywood as a whole. James Gunn, director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films, correctly points out in an Instagram post that “superheroes are simply today’s gangsters/cowboys/outer space adventurers.” Gunn also remarks that years ago, many filmmakers thought the same way of newcomers Scorsese and Coppola and their gangster movies, as opposed to the popular westerns of the time. Knowing this history of cinematic trends, it appears that Scorsese and Coppola’s statements were made in disdain for the new genre dethroning their films from blockbuster status. In other words, these statements are simply the tired complaints from old filmmakers mad at young people for enjoying movies they don’t personally view as cinema. 

The massive success of the MCU — both critically and financially — has possibly threatened Scorsese and Coppola’s own storytelling. For one thing, it is easy to observe the new Hollywood trend inspired by the MCU: franchises that spawn multiple films, or a “cinematic universe.” Scorsese’s description of the MCU as a “theme park” makes sense when viewed through this lens; the Marvel films together act as an immersive, escapist reality that we are transported to when we enter a theatre. Even Robert Downey Jr. (known for playing Iron Man) sympathizes with Scorsese, although he disagrees. On a podcast with Howard Stern, he stated that superhero genre movies “denigrated” an older era of cinema, but that “when you [Marvel films] come in like a stomping beast, and you eliminate the competition in such a demonstrative way, you know, it’s phenomenal.” 

When taking this into consideration, Scorsese’s perspective can likely be attributed to a Hollywood that may be leaving him behind in favour of films adapted from pre-existing intellectual property, such as comic books. However, no single genre is superior to the other, because everyone’s tastes are subjective. This new wave of superhero films and the classic gangster movies of old are both fetishized and beloved in their own way.